Sexual Inadequacy: But What About the Footman?
What I watch before I go to bed is largely dictated by what I can stream to my computer via Hulu or Netflix. I usually watch something with my roommate, Christian, so it has to be something we both agree on. He likes programs with a subtle emotional register and vivid characters. I enjoy people being catty to one another in fancy clothes. Naturally, we've been watching a lot of British Television.
This includes Downton Abbey, a period piece about a family and their servants, living on an estate after the sinking of the Titanic but before the first World War. The patriarch of the family has no male heir and must surrender the estate to an obscure relation, the three daughters are being wooed by suitors, and their daily lives are mirrored in the power struggles that go on in the kitchen and the servant's quarters. It is a high-quality show, full of intrigue and interest, and I found myself getting wrapped up in the drama of each episode. Sadly, we burned through them in a week, and new episodes don't air until Winter 2012. When we next see the Crawley family, it will be without their first footman, Thomas.
In the pilot, you find out Thomas and a visiting Duke are lovers, and that the Duke had been writing Thomas mash notes (which go into the fire, of course, so Thomas cannot blackmail him). It feels very similar to the scenes between Ryan Phillippe and Bob Balaban in Gosford Park. Two episodes later Thomas hits on someone who blackmails him, and then for the rest of the series, he is simply a boilerplate villain. He and the villain lady take smoke breaks and plot their nefarious deeds and then they set them to motion. After a series of this, in the last episode the heat is on and Thomas volunteers to be a medic rather than be fired. Off he goes off-screen, gone, but quickly forgotten.
Because Thomas was kind of a boring character. He was just committed to ruining everyone's life and causing as much trouble as he could. It is weird to watch a character start off one size and begin to shrink as the show can't find a place for them. It's like, they had done the gay lover thing for the pilot, they had made him the source of all gloom and sadness in the house, and then they just ran out of ideas. Meanwhile I was doing what I always do when I see a queer on screen in a movie or a television show. I wonder what they are doing while the straight people are talking. I wonder what their sex life must be like in whatever historical age the writer has unthinkingly wished them into.
This is the problem I run into quite a lot. Because good queer characters can be so satisfying, I'm always let down when the most important thing that can be said of them is that they are queer, but not that they have much more to them than that. I'll still be watching when the show returns in a year and a half, but I'll always wonder how Thomas is making out. Even if I don't like him and don't think he was written as a strong, complex character, he was essentially what got me excited about the show and made me think it might be worth watching. It is hard not to wonder if the story of his life might not be as interesting as the parochial squabbles of a bunch of blue-blooded heterosexuals as they are forced to mingle with other hetrosexuals whose blood is varying levels of blue in relation to their own, but how boring is that, right? The vagabond life of a rogue thief in Edwardian London? What he doesn't steal, he seduces!
This is how people start writing fanfic.
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